UMaine men’s basketball program on right path after making changes

The University of Maine's Andrew Fleming dunks the ball against Northeastern during their game in the Steve Wright Classic at Case Gym in Boston on Nov. 20. Northeastern won 80-72. (Sam Perkins Photo)

The University of Maine’s Andrew Fleming dunks the ball against Northeastern during their game in the Steve Wright Classic at Case Gym in Boston on Nov. 20. Northeastern won 80-72. (Sam Perkins Photo)

The University of Maine men’s basketball coaching staff has made some recruiting and needed style of play changes this season after going 11-49 the past two seasons.

The style of play consisted of an uptempo offense, allowing players to dictate when and who shoots, pressing full-court and using 10 or 11 players. That style didn’t produce good offensive or defensive decisions but did result in 16.4 turnovers and 21.3 fouls per game along with poor shot selection.

The system was designed to increase possessions and it did with UMaine averaging 76 ppg, but it also gave opponents more possessions, resulting in their 86.9 ppg, while pressing full-court allowed more easy points and increased fouling.

UMaine used to sub every four to five minutes and that forced better players to take themselves to game. The result was often forced action and poor decisions like turnovers, fouls and poor shot selection.

Five players transferred out of the UMaine program last season and the team finished 334th in the Pomeroy Collegiate Rankings in the 23rd-ranked America East conference of 32 ranked leagues.

Only one starter was returning to the team and the coaching staff changed to recruiting experienced players, featuring three junior college transfers. The team began the season ranked 346th and was picked to finish ninth in America East in the preseason coaches poll.

The team was recently hurt by the loss of its long returning starter, 5-foot-11 guard Aaron Calixte, who is sidelined with an ankle injury.

The team should benefit, however, from more experienced players such as juniors Ilker Er (6-6), Austin Howard (6-1) and Wes Myers (6-2) along with sophomore Jaquan McKennon (5-11), redshirt freshman  Vincent Eze (6-8) and freshman Dan Evans, who did a year of prep school.

Another freshman who has been seeing some playing time is 6-7 Andrew Fleming, a former Oxford Hills standout.

So far, eight new players have accounted for 67.8 percent (246 of 366) of points scored and 72.5 percent (725 of 1,000) of minutes played.

This experience should make for improved basketball IQ’s to make better basketball decisions instead of just relying on athletic skills, which were more prevalent in the past two seasons.

This season’s team is also not pushing the ball in transition as much and seems to have changed more to a half-court offense.

The Black Bears have gone 1-4 in non-conference Division I games but have improved their defensive average, 86.9 ppg to 78.2 ppg, improved foul shooting from 65 to 69 percent, decreased turnovers from 16.3 to 11.6 and lowered opponents possessions.

However, the team still needs to work on its shot selection and is shooting just 40.4 percent from the floor, compared to 43 percent last year. The players are still deciding when and who shoots and are taking too many early 3-pointers in possessions.

The team would benefit from a quick-hitting, controlled offense that’s designed to determine when and who shoots. Focusing the playing time on seven or eight players, featuring Myers, Er and Howard, would also be beneficial along with a 1-3-1 zone that forces the ball to the corners for lower percentage 3-pointers and puts Eze in the middle for foul protection.

Implementing these three strategies, along with the players getting used to playing together, could make UMaine a threat to finish in the middle of America East and maybe even win a tourney game.

The coaching staff has made some good changes. Now, it’s time to give them some time and patience to develop their new team to hopefully peak at tourney time.